Relief and surprise as mayor signs GMO ban


Tribune-Herald staff writer

Mayor Billy Kenoi’s decision to sign Bill 113 came as a relief and surprise to some while others contemplated how it might impact farming on the Big Isle.

Kenoi signed the bill banning open-air use and open-air testing of genetically modified crops, with some exemptions, Thursday. The Hawaii County Council passed it in a 6-3 vote Nov. 19.

For those two weeks in between, bill supporters kept the threat of a veto at the front of their minds, with some thinking the fight about genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, had yet to be won. Overturning a veto would have required six votes from the council.

“It’s actually amazing and I didn’t expect that,” said Volcano resident Blake Watson, a member of GMO Free Hawaii Island.

“We’re really, really ecstatic and happy that the mayor was willing to listen to the people,” he said.

Watson said a protest march was being considered if Kenoi vetoed the bill.

“Now we’re going to organize some sort of celebration,” he said.

Kenoi avoided talking about his position on the bill publicly before he signed it, prompting GMO opponents to think he might side with pro-GMO agriculture groups.

A veto would not have been unprecedented.

On the Garden Island, Kauai County Mayor Bernard Carvalho vetoed a GMO bill last October. That veto was later overturned.

Former Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim also vetoed a ban on GMO coffee and taro in 2008. That was also overturned.

In his statement to County Council, Kenoi said, “We are determined to do what is right for the land because this place is unlike any other in the world. With this new ordinance we are conveying that instead of global agribusiness corporations, we want to encourage and support community-based farming and ranching.”

He also said it’s time to end the heated rhetoric over the issue and “reunite our farming community.” He pledged to launch a year of “research and data collection” to investigate “factual claims” and seek new directions for agriculture.

“This work will include an expanded database detailing locations of both organic and conventional farms, the crops that are grown, more accurate estimates of the revenue earned from these enterprises, and the challenges our farmers face in meeting food safety and organic certification requirements,” Kenoi said. “We will work with our farmers and our ranchers to carefully monitor the impacts of this bill over the next year to separate speculation and guesswork from the facts.”

The bill went into effect immediately upon receiving the mayor’s signature.

The ban on open-air use won’t apply to papaya farmers who rely on transgenic varieties resistant to the ringspot virus or other farmers who grow transgenic crops. That is thought to be limited to the Big Island Dairy that grows transgenic corn for feed.

Those farmers will be required to sign up for a registry with the county Department of Research and Development at the cost of $100 a year. Violators could be fined $1,000 a day for each violation.

Several agriculture organizations opposed the bill, along with some University of Hawaii scientists, who said it would restrict or stop genetic research on the isle and limit choices for farmers.

Opponents of the bill said they were disappointed and surprised Kenoi signed it.

“We have not heard anything reassuring I can tell farmers and ranchers on how this won’t impact them,” said Lorie Farrell, a coordinator with the pro-GMO group Hawaii Farmers and Ranchers United.

It’s unclear, she said, if any agriculture groups or farmers would challenge the law in court.

Papaya farmers also remained steadfast against it, even with the exemption.

“It will impact us in a very negative way right now,” said Ross Sibucao, president of the Hawaii Papaya Industry Association.

Sibucao said the bill leads to uncertainty about the future of the papaya industry and might deter customers from buying their products.

Another papaya grower, Michael Madamba, said he thinks the bill prevents any new farmers from growing transgenic papaya.

“The future, younger generation of farmers who want to grow papaya, they are totally restricted,” he said.

The bill says exemptions apply to “specific locations” where transgenic crops were cultivated.

Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille, who introduced the bill, said the exemption is intended to apply to the papaya industry as a whole, and would still allow for new GMO papaya farms.

Wille said the bill is not intended to end the debate about GMO agriculture, adding she still intends to bring back a bill to create a GMO ad hoc committee to study the issue further.

“I keep trying to say to everyone … this is not the end of the conversation,” she said.

The bill, nonetheless, highlighted strong divisions on the isle about genetically engineered crops.

During six months, Council listened to hundreds of testifiers on the issue, with many protesting GMO agriculture and the companies that promote them.

Pro-GMO farmers and scientists also came before Council, though in much smaller numbers, to argue for their safety and benefits.

But with opposition to GMO food appearing to rise, Wille said she thinks the county needed to take action.

“The problem is the science isn’t there,” she said, echoing similar statements made against GMO food. “You just get all of us being the experiments.”

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